Madcap Maverick: Swoosie Kurtz

Photo: Patrick McMullan

Maybe it was her odd name that fated Swoosie Kurtz to become Broadway’s favorite player of unhinged women. She’s earned two Tonys, one as a loopy housewife named Bananas in The House of Blue Leaves and the other as a pill-popping heiress in Fifth of July. Crazier still is the pace Kurtz has kept up over the years. At 62, she steps into a much older play, George Bernard Shaw’s tragicomic Heartbreak House, as Hesione, an eccentric bohemian temptress one character condemns as “a siren born to lead men by the nose.” She talked to Boris Kachka.

You’ve done loads of contemporary farce, but what do you do with classic material like Shaw?
That was a concern of mine. How do you still keep it clicking along for people who are used to watching in increments of 30 seconds? And the more I worked on it, the more the words hit the air, I realized it is so much funnier off the page than it is on. I feel this production has gone for a much more visceral human kind of juiciness underneath all of that [intellect]. And a line about “giving a torpedo to a badly brought-up child”—it’s just so right now. It could be on the op-ed page of the Times.

What have you picked up about how to play crazy?
They don’t think they’re all that extreme. Bananas thought she was the most normal housewife in Queens. Not that this character’s by any means insane—Hesione is a master manipulator. She loves to just lob a grenade in every so often to make excitement. It’s interesting, her fearless frankness with people, which is something that I need to work on.

She’s also very sexually free. I imagine there aren’t a lot of roles like that past a certain age on television.
She’s hotter than she’s ever been in her life! And it is absolutely punishable by law to be over 14 in Hollywood. I’m so glad to be back onstage. It’s just something I lust after.

Then why spend so much time in TV roles?
I love the immediacy of it. And there’s a lot of trash in it—but let’s face it, there’s great television and there’s some really bad plays. Look at Grey’s Anatomy—great writing. Better than any movie I’ve seen recently.

A lot of people say they’d rather just do theater.
You can’t do plays all the time. Everything is sacrificed on the altar of performance. There’s this great quote from Shaw I just found: It’s a letter to the producer of Heartbreak House in 1921, talking about the woman playing Hesione: “You must pamper her for all you are worth. Those three hours onstage must be paid for by a worthless, luxurious, lie-a-bed, lazy spoiled life during the other 21.” So that’s my excuse for sleeping in.

Sounds fun.
I’m one of those people who really can’t relax in real life. Real life is very tricky to navigate for me. It’s kind of the opposite of stage fright. I have life fright. I can’t wait to get onstage tonight so I can relax. I feel like then I am my true self.

Heartbreak House
At the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre; Opens October 11

Madcap Maverick: Swoosie Kurtz